Anyone who spends a substantial amount of time on the Internet will likely have come across what are called “cookies.” Food may be what comes to one’s mind when hearing about them, but in the world of the Internet, they serve a totally different purpose.
A cookie, more formally known as an HTTP cookie, is website data in text format stored by a web browser. These tiny bits of information are automatically downloaded by browsers when visiting any website. A cookie can either contain information about the site itself, or the ads, images and graphics found on the Web page. This means that you can potentially download information on a website without actually visiting it, because you came across an ad that redirects to that site. Cookies typically contain 5 sections of information: the name of the site or web page, the content, domain, expiration and path. This information can easily be accessed by going to a browser’s options or preferences menu, granted of course that the browser enables cookies.
What Are Cookies For?
Cookies are used for storing information on passwords and usernames for specific sites. Cookies also hold information on website preferences, as well as personalized looks and formats for web pages. Cookies have a plethora of uses, but it’s definitely best to start by providing examples on how they are used.
1. Online Shopping/Ordering Systems
In this scenario, cookies can store information on a user’s past purchases and previous inquiries, helping the user make an informed decision on what item to buy. Enabling cookies for an e-commerce site allows the browser to remember past transactions which took place even years ago.
2. Website and Web Page Customization
Cookies are particularly useful for Internet users who frequent particular sites. A user who visits a news website such as CNN.com for example, can set the default landing page to the International version of the site by enabling cookies. This option will then remain fixed, that is until the cookie expires or if the user makes any changes.
More beneficial for webmasters and developers, cookies can help them figure out visitor behaviour and provide analysis on popular pages, visitor counts, transaction counts and more. Website tracking has proven to be a controversial issue, with a number of people saying that it’s an invasion of privacy on the Internet.
Cookies are stored in directories and folders, usually hidden by default. Where these folders are placed in your computer will largely depend on your choice of browser and your operating system. Internet Explorer for Windows for example, has a folder named “Cookies\” where data is kept in small text files, one file each for a cookie. Mozilla on the other hand, uses a single .txt file to store cookie information. You can access these files yourself by check with your browser options, or by running a search on your computer.
Disabling cookies for all websites can be done, but it’s largely impractical since cookies can serve useful and safe purposes. Users however, are advised not to allow their browsers to remember usernames and passwords—save for websites that are really trustworthy. A periodic cookie clean-up is also advisable. This allows Internet users to get an idea on their browsing habits, and weed out cookies with dubious origins.